In a surreal scene Wednesday at the Manitoba legislature, one-third of the province's 57 MLAs, sitting well apart from one another, debated seven emergency bills to address the COVID-19 crisis, while several support staff and at least one politician donned masks.
The bills included new measures giving the province greater powers to restrict Manitobans' movements and the ability to punish citizens more severely for breaking public-health orders.
With physical distancing in full force, cabinet ministers occupied spots on the back benches, and the middle row of seats in the chamber remained empty.
"We will face our challenges together, strong and united," Premier Brian Pallister told the house as the session began.
The government's intent was to compress the days and weeks of debate that normally accompany each bill to a single day. Debate was expected to continue into the evening before the bills received royal assent, as Opposition politicians negotiated with the government over amendments.
Legislation was passed Wednesday evening.
A bill amending the Public Health Act allows an order to be issued to prohibit or restrict people from travelling to and from specified areas in Manitoba.
Bill 59 also enables authorities to order people travelling into and out of specific locations to take certain precautions to prevent the spread of a communicable disease.
It also gives a medical officer or inspector broad powers to deal with anyone failing to comply with a public-health emergency order. They could take or cause to be taken "any action that the medical officer or inspector considers necessary to carry out the order." The officer or inspector could request the help of a peace officer or any other person to carry out the order, the bill states.
The Emergency Measures Amendment Act (Bill 54) gives the provincial cabinet broad, largely undefined, powers during a state of emergency. Cabinet could make "any order" it considers necessary and essential "to prevent, reduce, or mitigate serious harm or substantial damage to persons or property or the effects of fiscal or economic disruption."
The bill increases penalties under the act to a maximum of $100,000 or one year in prison for individuals and a maximum $1-million fine for corporations. It gives courts the option to increase the fine for a person convicted of price gouging by an amount equal to the financial benefit acquired.
The bill also gives the government the power to build an emergency shelter wherever it's needed regardless of local bylaws.
The amendments authorizing the provincial government to make emergency orders are temporary and automatically rescinded after one year.
Other bills introduced Wednesday provide enabling legislation for recently announced government initiatives, including adding temporary protected leave for employees who can't work due to circumstances related to the pandemic.
The government also tabled documents to provide additional spending authority for up to $1 billion for COVID-19 initiatives, including $500 million to fund health services, $100 million for emergency expenditures and $400 million for new pandemic-related costs throughout government.
The $400 million gives the government the flexibility to create new programs or support services for Manitobans, or cover pandemic-increased costs under existing programs.
Opposition politicians said their main concern was the absence so far of any direct provincial financial aid for individuals and small businesses.
"We're pushing for that. We haven't seen it from the government yet," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.
He said Manitoba could have used the $4 million it has budgeted to fund a call centre to help Manitobans apply for federal programs to instead finance the costs of providing interest-free loans to small businesses and landlords, the latter benefiting renters.
The latest updates on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said laid-off workers and small businesses that have been forced to close or severely scale back operations need help to cover their basic costs.
"There are times when the private sector melts down and government is the only institution with the tools and the resources to step in and rebuild," he said in the legislature. "This is one of those times. We cannot shy away from it."
At a mid-afternoon press conference, Pallister hinted for the first time that the government was working on some form of direct assistance program that would complement federal programs.
"I'd prefer to tell you next week when the details are ironed out," he told reporters.
Carol Sanders Legislature reporter
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Representing the Progressive Conservatives: Premier Brian Pallister, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen, Health Minister Cameron Friesen, Finance Minister Scott Fielding, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen, Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton, Municipal Relations Minister Rochelle Squires, Families Minister Heather Stefanson, Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard, Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler, Doyle Piwniuk (Arthur-Virden) and Andrew Micklefield (Rossmere).
Representing the New Democrats: Party Leader Wab Kinew, Nahanni Fontaine (St. Johns), Adrien Sala (St. James), Bernadette Smith (Point Douglas), Matt Wiebe (Concordia) and Uzoma Asagwara (Union Station).
Representing the Liberals: Party Leader Dougald Lamont (spelled off occasionally by Burrows MLA Cindy Lamoureux).
Speaker Myrna Driedger (Roblin) presided.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer were criticized for travels during the Easter weekend that appeared to contradict public-health guidelines to keep Canadians at home.
When asked how he spent his long weekend, Pallister said he would not criticize the two federal leaders, saying both "have tremendously difficult jobs."
The premier said he spent the weekend with his wife, but he didn't say whether they remained in the city.
"I’m trying to do my best," he said, about following the instructions of chief provincial public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin.